A world in which cars listen, TV screens bend and machines write (no humans necessary). No, it's not a teaser for a new sci-fi series. These are some of the most intriguing technology trends happening right now.
Another trend we're keen on: Though pricing on first-generation products used to make it difficult (if not impossible) for small businesses to take a chance on an untested product, many tech vendors, driven by a post-recession need for cash and lots of competition, are pushing products to market at lower-than-ever prices.
Are you ready for more future in your now?
In the Mix
The idea of having a "personal cloud" for storage is so 2011. Now you can combine office, mobile, web-based and even homebased storage options to achieve near-automatic caching of data on everything from your smartphone to your TV set-top box. What's more, the line has become blurred in terms of personal and business use of such technologies.
"Many [people] today not only use the cloud to automatically back up their photos from their smartphone to their computer and share those photos with friends, but they also use the cloud to share critical files with their co-workers, collaborate on those files and have access to them from any device they happen to have with them," says Laura Yecies, CEO of SugarSync, a San Mateo, Calif.-based integrated storage provider. "One could argue that the ‘personal cloud' is dissipating as the lines between business and personal lives are shifting, and that now it is just the ‘all-purpose cloud.'"
Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark and Canon have touted their web-enabled printers for years--but the hardware wasn't all that useful or necessary. That has changed. Now, thanks to the current crop of mobile devices, you can send documents to printers directly from your smartphone or tablet. Instead of lugging along a load of collateral materials on your next business trip or stuffing a lot of just-in-case papers into your briefcase, you can store the documents on your device and print them as needed.
"Whether it's a real estate agent on the move who needs printed copies of contracts or an insurance agent who needs to print several forms quickly, printing without a PC has become more of a must-have than simply a premium," says Tuan Tran, vice president of Hewlett-Packard's imaging and printing group.
The trend that started with smartphones and tablets has leapt off the small screens: Now desktop computers, printers and more can be managed by a touch of the finger. And innovations in the technology have helped bring the price way down. Formerly enterprise-only solutions like touch-controlled office kiosks, interactive point-of-sale terminals and even sophisticated employee inventory systems are now within reach of the smallest small businesses. One worth a look? The ViewSonic VX2258 touch-controlled monitor (about $340) can be installed in a store or medical waiting room as a low-cost interactive kiosk.
Tech-savvy companies that need more desktop computers but don't want to spend big for the firepower should consider a different breed of machine: zero-client PCs. These cheap, small units are, quite frankly, weaklings on the processing front--until you network them to a full-power computer nearby. Zero-clients have been big-company tools for some time, but recent price drops mean that a shop with just a few seats can zero out its PCs.
"Sectors where data security, IT productivity and endpoint reliability are critical are a very good fit for zero-client computing--specifically, health care, financial services, hospitality and retail, along with local government and education," says James Buzzard, vice president for marketing at Pano Logic, a zero-client PC manufacturer in Redwood City, Calif.
Innovations in wireless communications come and go, but with service providers investing heavily in blazingly fast Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks, it looks like the technology will be around for some time. Though Verizon Wireless was once the sole LTE provider, now players from AT&T to Google-backed startup Clearwire are stepping into the arena--which means several choices will soon exist for accessing the web while on the go as quickly as you can in the office.
"The emergence of LTE speeds has revolutionized the mobile experience for small businesses," says Walt Rivenbark, area vice president for mobility applications consulting at AT&T Mobility. "Salespeople will benefit by being able to collaborate remotely with their peers, easily review and share large files and help prevent service technicians from making a second trip."
But you may not want to sign up for LTE immediately. The service has its problems: Coverage is still spotty, and there can be brutally expensive usage caps. But, sooner rather than later, the technology may be so robust that a single mobile data connection will work in the office and on the road, allowing businesses to drop their pricey internet service for a single cheap LTE deal.
Thanks to the likes of Ford, GM and Toyota, even small-business owners can stop thinking company cars and start thinking company fleet. Auto manufacturers have started offering low-cost business-oriented tracking tools and productivity features that mirror the logistics packages of big-time fleets.
"Factory-embedded productivity tools help fleet owners present data like where vehicles are, driver behavior and dispatch options. And they make that information accessible from any computer," says Ed Pleet, product and business development manager for connected services at the Ford Motor Company. Ford's Crew Chief vehicle management app starts at $425, plus $32 a month.
Just be careful: Though fleet management tools are helpful in figuring out which delivery guy can handle that last-minute pickup, improper utilization could make your staff feel like you're spying on them.
No, don't toss your keyboard quite yet. But do think of voice-control technology as an always-at-the-ready assistant that can help out when you're driving, caring for patients or knee-deep in hands-on work. "Voice-recognition tools also can be effective in workplaces with document-intensive work flows," says Vlad Sejnoha, chief technology officer at Burlington, Mass.-based Nuance Communications, which offers the Dragon Go! voice-recognition search app. "For example, the federal government has mandated the use of electronic medical record systems to capture and share patient information. But they tend to be hard to use, template-oriented and a good option for voice recognition."
But be prepared to put some time into practicing with the technology before you unleash it on your business. Those misdials that get served up by your car's Bluetooth? You don't want the same thing happening with sensitive business docs or in client communications.
Plenty of people will feel itchy at the thought (the editors at Entrepreneur among them), but there are machines out there that can write. Not just type or print, but actually turn bits of data into full sentences.
Durham, N.C.'s Automated Insights has put its writing program to work to create more than 400 websites, 700 Twitter feeds and 400 mobile apps. The 13-person firm creates every single grammatically correct word of this network by machine, and founder and CEO Robbie Allen believes automated authoring has a home in almost any business. "We originally started out focused on data-intensive content like sports," he says. "But now we realize we can use the technology in anything from financial services to health care."
Imagine a PC screen that can bend around a column or along the curves of a car's interior. Consumer-targeted tools like bendable iPads are still years away, but moderately flexible screens, such as those from Norcross, Ga.-based NanoLumens, are already available. The company's NanoFlex products can conform to curved surfaces in retail spaces, lobbies, transportation hubs or hospitality venues.
"It's all about more screens," says Nick Colaneri, director of Arizona State University's Flexible Display Center in Tempe. "Everywhere you look: at work, sides of cars--anywhere."
Join the Club
Shopping clubs aren't just for buying vats of ketchup anymore. These days they're targeting businesses by pushing essential tech products. Need a multiline phone setup, a high-speed network printer or even a sophisticated networking system? Now you can load up your cart during a trip to Sam's Club, Costco or BJ's Wholesale Club--and you may never have to rely on a pricey business technology reseller again.
"As the consumer market slows, tech vendors look for ways to reconnect with customers, and the small-business-oriented shopping club is a natural fit," says Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm the NPD Group.
There are drawbacks to using a club as your go-to tech vendor: Items come and go, so you may not find what you need, and most don't offer much on-the-floor customer service. (Luckily, you can put your smartphone to work midaisle to search out product reviews.) And, as it was with that backyard shed you bought at the club the week before, you'll need to know how to install and service your tech purchases--or be ready to hire someone who does.